My seven days climbing Mount Kilimanjaro - Blog by Natalie Charlton

Kilimanjaro Challenge

When Ralph called last Christmas and asked if I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro for Project Africa, I jumped at the chance. Well, if Cheryl Cole can do it.. So can I! (Was my philosophy). My older Sister tenderly pointed out that evening that ‘Cheryl is a professional dancer and is probably much fitter than you’. Good point. My other reaction was, can I take my hair straighteners, would there be any point? My younger Sister answered ‘I’m sure you will be more concerned about climbing a mountain than what your hair looks like’. Another good point. The next day I started researching and, yes, I was unprepared.

A few things that jumped out at me:

1) The name – KIL-i-MAN-jaro – a mountain with both the words ‘Kill’ and ‘Man’ in its name, in my opinion, isn’t good.

2) AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness – potentially fatal) there is no prevention for this and is the danger of climbing. You might get it, you might not.

3) Di-amox  (the treatment for AMS) Coincidence? I don’t think so.

The last year has been spent training in the Ilkley Moors, long walks home (16.8 miles), running and spending far too much time and becoming far too friendly with my local ‘Mountain Warehouse’ staff. Shopping for the Outdoors can be very addictive, I didn’t know, for example,  you could buy a fleece and silk sleeping bag liners, for extra warmth! Also that a clippy thing that you would clip items to your bag is called a ‘Caribeana’. No, why would you? So 10 months later, I’m all ready and packed to go. I felt a bit strange carrying a massive back pack and wearing walking boots in an Airport, its usually flip flops and a massive suitcase packed with clothes I’ll never wear. I usually have a few glasses of fizz at the airport bar pre-flight. But not this time, I had trained to be fit to conquer the mountain.

So here is my blog for the first 7 days of the expedition. So far this trip has been amazing, full of training for the big climb, lots of attempts at acclimatisation and stunning views. Camping in the freezing cold African mountains though is something left to be desired (even with the fleece liner).

Day One

We all met in Amsterdam to fly into Kilimanjaro for 730pm. As we landed Tom regaled a story of how the last time he came to Kili he collected someone else’s bag by accident and only returned it the next day. Tom chuckled that his revenge is probably that his bag hasn’t made it from Amsterdam. At baggage collection, as the last bag came off the conveyor belt, we all realised Toms bag had indeed not made it from Amsterdam. Not the greatest start. Poor Tom. Robbie helped with the quip that ‘it could have been worse, it could have been MY bag’.

So after some baggage handling paperwork, minus one bag we headed to the hotel. Now we know why we were told to wear your walking boots on the flight, as these are the only things you can’t replace (without pain) if your bag does go missing.

We had dinner and met George, our guide for the trip. We spent the rest of the evening constantly questioning George. Q. What are the showers like? A. there are none. Q. What do we wear on an evening? A. Whatever you like as long as its warm. Q. What’s the worst thing that could happen on the mountain? (a more sensible question) A. probably AMS (acute mountain sickness) or death. Sometimes not knowing is best.

Day Two

George took us to the viewing point to see the mountain in real life for the first time. I was looking over the to the horizon and said ‘George, I can’t see it!’

‘Look up Nat.. A little further.. Higher Nat’

And there it was. This huge brown bump overshadowing the African Plains. Eek! I have to start climbing that tomorrow.

Later that afternoon the rest of the team joined us, Coral, Ladbrokes, Genting, Sky and inspired. We had our official briefing from Charity Challenge and swapped horror stories about Kili.

Day Three

We all travelled by bus to Rongai Gate sans full kit and signed in, its was all starting to get very real (and why do they need to register you? In case you never come back??)

We then met our family of ‘Porters’ for the week. 94 of them in total. Just to look after 27 of us. Over the week these guys invaluble to us. They would bring us tea (beddy tea) in the morning, washing water (washy washy) straight after, carry our main packs during the day, cook our 3 course meals, carry all the water, food and tents ahead to camp and even carried us (on occasion) up or down the mountain if needed. The Porters are there to ensure our safety on the Mountain and they went above and beyond to achieve this. More on them later.

We continued the day with a trek through the rainforest, you could bizarrely feel the altitude kicking in straight away. To walk just a few short yards uphill left you breathless. It was really unnerving. Along the trek we spotted some Colobus Monkeys, was greeted by the cutest children – who fleeced us of all our chocolate reserve (used to keep energy up on the trek) and experienced the first long drop of the expedition. I’ll leave the detail out of that one.

After lunch we pushed onto our first camp ‘Simba camp’. We had a cup of tea, a short rest and then went on a quick acclimtisation walk before settling for the evening. Best practice for acclimatisation and handling it well is to ‘climb high, sleep low’ so that’s just what we did.

Following that was ‘washy washy’ and dinner.

Total hours walking: 3-4

Day Four

Its a strange feeling waking up in camp with a bunch of strangers. All feeling and looking slightly rough (maybe this was just me) but still having to be very polite. Robbie kept spirits and banter to the maximum in the morning so we were ready and positive for our second walk.

The walk went well, I think we were all a bit slower than the previous day as the air got thinner. The team were in great spirits and stopped to take some pictures of the amazing views as we got higher. We stopped at a couple of caves which were incredible, we all felt very lucky that we had got to see such things. Robbie however was not feeling so lucky, he had continued with a bad headache from the day before. It seemed to be the first signs of altitude sickness.

Towards the end of the day we were all flagging slightly. A good trick I found, is to walk with different people throughout the trek, to give you a bit of a boost I suppose. We all know I like a chat (I know! Shocking!) and this seemed to take my mind off the long road ahead.

Robbie is really bad by the time we have our last break of the day but pushes on slowly to the camp. We FINALLY arrive at around 5-6pm. A very long but productive day. One girl in our group Chan had come down with a suspected bug and arrived, practically carried by the doc and a couple of others, into camp about an hour after we had. We all stood at the top of camp and cheered them home for support. It was nice to do this and we all rallied round then with tea and snacks when they finally stepped into camp. This trip proves how important teamwork is and I feel reassured we have such a supportive team.

Total hours walking: 7-8

Day Five

I woke up this morning and my heart was racing, altitude seems to be kicking in! George took my stats, my pulse was 100 resting and my oxygen levels were around 80%. I felt fine but my heart wasn’t for slowing down and I really didn’t want it to hinder my progress. George explained that if we were in the UK I would have been put on oxygen, however, we weren’t so I’d just have to see what happened (I explained George would make a TERRIBLE doctor). He then measured Andreas stats to compare and discovered although her heart rate was a little faster than normal her oxygen levels were lower than mine. Phew, that was a slight relief – Sorry Andrea! It just proved how altitude can have such an effect on your body.

The other annoying thing about altitude is the effect on your appetite. The one thing you need when climbing Kili is food to keep your strength and energy up and the one thing altitude takes away is your appetite! So at breakfast we were all forcing each other to eat. Just one more mouthful of porridge. Just one more! I never need any encouragement to eat so this was very strange.

I went to see Robbie and he hadn’t improved. His headache had worsened and he looked dreadful (not a regular occurrence I know!) We had been scheduled to walk 3-4 hours today and I think he thought if he could do this he could try and acclimatize at the next camp. I wasn’t so sure but he pushed on regardless.

At the first break of the day the decision was made that Robbie turn back. He had just deteriorated even more, it was awful to see and there was nothing the doctor or guides could do for him. It was a really hard decision for him to make and you could tell he really didn’t want to go. He had no choice though, he didn’t have time to acclimatise now and it was dangerous for him to carry on. It was really sad and shocked us all to think that it could happen to any of us after all the effort of getting so far.

The route today was just a short one but very steep and we were all pleased to arrive at camp. The scenery was amazing and this would be our home for 2 whole nights (phew! No more packing and unpacking!). Mood in camp was good but subdued. We sat down, had a cup of tea, garnered some energy then went on another walk adding on an extra 200m so we could sleep better that evening. To my surprise, the climb was so hard and I was in the last group to make it to the top. The view at the top however was a real boost. Going down was much better and I felt relieved that I would have a good rest that night.

Time for washy washy and bed.

Total hours walking: 5-6

Day Six

Today was acclimatisation day. Only a short walk was scheduled up and down to the top of camp and I was really looking forward to it. We would gain another 300m and what a walk it was. The altitude was really tough but the walk was ok. George showed us how to effectively ‘ski’ down the mountain on your feet. It was such a great laugh and exhilarating. If I had the energy I would have gone up just to come down again! Everyone got back to camp feeling great. A successful day.

We had a very serious briefing after dinner about the following day. We would walk to base camp in the morning, rest, have lunch, rest again, have dinner at 5pm, go to sleep and wake at 11pm to head to the Summit! This was it! We were urged to get lots of rest.

Total hours walking: 3

Day Seven

Well.. not the ideal night’s sleep we were all hoping for. The weather in camp was terrible. The wind was constant (so much so it blew over one of the toilets, with someone in it!) and we also had hail and rain. The weather is so interchangeable this high up you never know what’s coming next. Not only this, both Andrea and I woke up with a terrible headache. How did this happen? We thought we had acclimatised! It was disheartening but not much we could do. We popped a couple of pills and hoped for the best. Time to force down breakfast and get to base camp.

We set off on a 5-6 hour walk to base camp, ‘Kibo hut’. At this camp there is no fresh water so the porters had the day before, carried a supply of water up for us and came back down for the tents etc. Incredible effort! If they can do that then we can get ourselves there in one piece!

The trek was unusual. It seemed to be one long straight road heading towards the base of Kili. It was a tad boring. Which wasn’t ideal as all you could think of was the nights climb. There wasn’t much to see just the mountain ahead of you. I found myself getting into a staring contest with it. I lost. I was sure the mountain was taunting me.

We arrived at Kibo, had some tea and rested. The mood in camp was quiet and subdued. I think we were all nervous. All the hard work and training would be put into action in less than 12 hours. We were put to bed at 5pm with full tummys and tried hard to sleep.

The Summit

We woke at 11pm. Dressed in the dark adding as many layers as possible without losing the ability to walk with so many clothes on. We met in the mess tent for ‘breakfast’. Porridge. Again. To be honest there was a lot of excitement and no time to be nervous. We filled up our camel  packs with hot water, stuffed as many snacks into our pockets as possible and set off. This would be a long night… This was it. Time to get your head down and get on with it, hopefully the end was in sight.

I’m pleased to say at around 6am that morning I finally reached the top. God knows how I did it but I seemed to be there, in one piece!

To be honest, I don’t recollect much of the 6 hours I walked for. I remember being SO out of breath, counting maybe 3 steps at a time before I had to stop for breath. Loads of people in my group became ill from altitude sickness. Every time we tried to stop for a break or water we would just freeze so had to constantly keep moving. I remember porters trying to put my gloves back on for me and passing me water to drink from my flask as my camel pack had frozen. The night seemed to go on forever. It was just endless none stop walking, breathless slow walking and the odd person shouting out ‘PMA’ (positive mental attitude) I remember thinking that if I had the energy I’d punch them.

I’m pleased to say the rest of the William Hill Team also made it (all before me, may I add) to the top, never doubted them for a second. Thomas, Tom and Maria also pushed on to make it to the highest point Uhuru peak (Well done them!). So proud of us.

At the top, I watched the sunrise over the mountain and I have to say it was a very special moment. One I’ll never forget.

I’d trained so hard for this that I would never have given up getting to the top (even though I had shouted this a few times out loud – apparently – I don’t believe these stories and if it was true I blame the altitude sickness) I wouldn’t have given up but my body may have. That’s the hard thing about Killi. You can be as prepared as you want mentally and physically but if altitude get hold you have no choice but to turn back. That’s why you must stay positive.

Climbing Kili has to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It’s really challenging to stay positive when so many things are hindering your attitude (your lack of appetite, the cold, team members being ill, your constant need to go to the loo in the middle of the night when all you want to do it sleep and you’ve JUST got comfortable..)

Looking back I loved every second of the trip, I never thought I’d be able to say that I’ve climb Kilimanjaro, BUT I’ve proved myself wrong. I spent a lot of time worrying about it and hoping I could do it. I’ve learnt sometimes it’s best to just get on with the task in hand and not worry about things that you haven’t done yet.

I read this quote in a magazine on the plane which I think is very fitting: ‘If you keep thinking about what you want to do or what you hope will happen, you don’t do it and it won’t happen’. – Desideruis Erasmus.

So I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to do something that terrified me. It has taught me a lot.

Nat x